Sunday, September 26, 2010

Goal of Self-examination

To lay a foundation for talking about Puritan devotional practices, let’s clear up a misconception: the practice of self-examination was not just a morose focus on the minutest sins.  While many engaged in listing their sins, they had a goal beyond self-examination: a clearer view of Christ.  Realization of one’s own sinfulness was followed by a realization of God’s grace, delight in His presence, and spontaneous prayers of thanksgiving.  In my readings, I have observed both facets of Puritan meditation: confession of sin and confession of God’s blessings.

Puritan meditation on sin was followed by meditation on “the joy of union with Christ,” Charles Hambrick-Stowe points out in The Practice of Piety (p.165).  The process of devotion was to know the evil of your heart and then come to Christ.  John Downame, in his widely-read period devotional manual, wrote:
“Wee are not to bend all out thoughts to meditate and call to mind all our sins…The huge cloud of our sinnes being neere our eyes, will hide from our sight the shining beames of Gods mercy and Christs merit….As soone as wee cast one eye upon our sins for our humiliation, let us cast the other presently upon Christ Jesus, who hath payd the price for our redemption, and suffered all the punishment which we by our sins have deserved.” (167) 
 Once properly humbled by knowing himself, the believer could see the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice.  Then, in “the highest form of self-examination,” a saint could return thanksgiving, meditating on blessings bestowed by God (175).

This sequence—humiliation of self to praise of God—was lived out in public and private Puritan practice.  A town’s covenant-making day was commonly a “Day of Humiliation,” and covenant-renewal was always performed in conjunction with a fast day.  These serious occasions, though, were each followed within a few days by an appointed Day of Thanksgiving.  In individual devotions, the same pattern manifests, notably in Cotton Mather’s Diary.  At about age 18, he one day awakened to his sin of pride, so he set apart a day of humiliation.  On this day, he examined himself and found himself “most wofully guilty before the Lord” (16).  He recorded reasons, prayers and his hope in God’s assurances.  Three days later, he scheduled a day of thanksgiving.  In systematic plain style, he recollected and recorded Mercies, praised God on his knees for specific things, and considered how he would show gratitude in future actions.  Overwhelmed by God's goodness and grace toward him, Mather concluded earnestly, " “Shall I not every Day, in every Capacity, Relation, Company, bee contriving, What can I now and here do for God? And lay myself out accordingly.  Oh! that, oh! that, Oh! that, God would help mee, thus to do!”

Self-examination, then, is not an end in itself: it moves toward communion with God.  By prayerfully focusing on one’s own soul, one prepares to move to a deeper focus on God.  The result of this meditation is joy, gratitude, praise, and resolution. 

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